Fool's Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychologyby Stewart Justman
Through the channels of the mass media, celebrity psychologists urge us to realize that society has robbed us of our authentic selves. That every moral standard or prohibition imposes on our selfhoods. That what we have inherited from the past is false. That we ourselves are the only truth in a world of lies. That we must challenge "virtually everything." That we… See more details below
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Through the channels of the mass media, celebrity psychologists urge us to realize that society has robbed us of our authentic selves. That every moral standard or prohibition imposes on our selfhoods. That what we have inherited from the past is false. That we ourselves are the only truth in a world of lies. That we must challenge "virtually everything." That we must "wipe the slate clean and start over." Each of these "principles" is a commonplace of pop psychology, and each has almost unimaginably radical implications. Where did pop psychology come from, and what are its promisesand fallacies? How is it that we have elevated people like Phil McGraw, Theodore Rubin, Wayne Dyer, M. Scott Peck, Thomas Harris, John Gray, and many other self-help gurus to priestly status in American culture? In Fool's Paradise, the award-winning essayist Stewart Justman traces the inspiration of the pop psychology movement to the utopianism of the 1960s and argues that it consistently misuses the rhetoric that grew out of the civil rights movement. Speaking as it does in the name of our right to happiness, pop psychology promises liberation from all that interferes with our power to create the selves we want. In so doing, Mr. Justman writes, it not only defies reality but corrodes the traditions and attachments that give depth and richness to human life. His witty and astringent appraisal of the world of pop psychology, which quotes liberally from the most popular sources of advice, is an essential social corrective as well as a vastly entertaining and stimulating book.
Diane C. Donovan
Midwest Book Review
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FOOL'S PARADISEThe Unreal World of Pop Psychology
By Stewart Justman
Ivan R. DeeCopyright © 2005 Stewart Justman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Golden Path to Self-realization
"Plagued by anxiety, depression, vague discontents, a sense of inner emptiness, the 'psychological man' of the twentieth century seeks ... peace of mind under conditions that increasingly militate against it. Therapists ... become his principal allies in the struggle for composure; he turns to them in the hope of achieving the modern equivalent of salvation, 'mental health.'" Thus Christopher Lasch, writing in 1979 in The Culture of Narcissism. By narcissism Lasch meant not conventional self-love but an anxious craving for audience and admiration born of a void within, and maybe it is some such hunger that calls forth the flattering assurances that are pop psychology's note, as when a counselor reminds his unseen reader of "how wondrous and interesting you can be."
The influence of pop psychology now extends from the preschool to the university, from the clinic to the church. Such is the fashion for therapy that it is now offered not only in the psychologist's office-the modern confessional-but on television and radio and, as in the instance just cited, in print. It is the print genre of pop psychology that I explore in this book. Somewhere in this vast field there may be a few who do not subscribe to the dubious doctrines probed here. I am prepared to admit these as honorable exceptions.
Some might ask, Why bother investigating something as vacuous as pop psychology? Its influence is reason enough. Employing the rhetoric of civil rights and drawing on the tradition of dissent even as it celebrates liberation from the past, pop psychology is designed to appeal, and it does. It seems to own a share of the best-seller lists and speaks a language all know by heart. An institution of such magnitude calls for scrutiny. Much as the absurd but academically fashionable doctrine that the laws of science are socially constructed would matter even if it never impeded the activity of science, so I think the theories and precepts of pop psychology would merit inquiry even if they never inspired accusations, on the basis of recovered memories and suspect testimony, of the sexual abuse of children.
Oddly, though, while pop psychology has lent its authority to criminal prosecutions, it has also established the doctrine that blame is destructive-that it warps our humanity. If the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb is right that the aversion to moral judgment "is now so firmly entrenched in the popular vocabulary and sensibility that one can hardly imagine a time without it," it is above all pop psychology, with its pejorative use of the word "judgment," that underwrites this attitude. No other influence, certainly no academic trend, compares. Academic trends are like dry lightning, producing flash, spectacle, and spot fires. Pop psychology is a steady soaking rain that reaches down to the roots of our common life. It not only works itself into general speech but, as I hope to show, alters the uses of words. The dissemination of a language in which it is possible to say, "You 'fall in love' with yourself in much the same way that you fall in love with another," in which the therapist can promise the reader, "Soon you have a whole new history," challenges one's sense of reality.
Like its message that human beings will become moral only if and when they repudiate what the world calls morality, pop psychology's promise of "a whole new history" and its use of a kind of alternative language identify it as a utopian project. In Sir Thomas More's Utopia, all cities are built on the same plan, that of King Utopus himself, the commonwealth's founder. Theory precedes reality. The counselor can assure his reader of "how wondrous and interesting you can be" without ever having laid eyes on this person, because his theory dictates not only that the reader is wondrous and that the reader has lost cognizance of this truth, but that the reader can nevertheless recover the knowledge of his or her own wonder with the proper help-which is a lot of presumption to be packed into a single phrase. (Not only memories but our true selves are forgotten and recovered in the world of pop psychology.) To readers unknown, a psychologist can declare, "You may not know how or why your relationship got into such a mess, but I do know. I know what you're going through, and I know how it all happened." Theory precedes evidence.
The theory that living is a matter of technique, and that techniques are best learned from experts-one of the axioms of pop psychology-has ties to the utopian tradition itself. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's utopia Herland (1915) is a fictionalization of theories advanced in her own Women and Economics (1898), among them the doctrine that with the evolution of humanity, chores like cooking and cleaning will pass to "the hands of trained experts." The Herlanders are unwilling to entrust child-rearing "to unskilled hands." Pop psychology, in the spirit of Herland, argues that child-rearing ("parenting") must submit to the findings of the appropriate experts if it is to evolve into an enlightened practice-and the writers of advice literature profess to be those experts. The genre thus certifies and advertises its own importance.
There is something self-referential about pop psychology. Authors construct the success stories that verify their doctrines, Stephen Covey cites his own dictates like natural laws (indeed, he insists they are natural laws), Melody Beattie in The Language of Letting Go quotes Melody Beattie in Codependent No More and Beyond Codependency, and the entire pop psychology genre seems involved in itself in the same way, as if it really were captivated by its own reflection.
More's Utopia, severed from the mainland by its founder; the island of the rational horses in Gulliver's Travels; Herland itself, surrounded by sheer cliffs; Orwell's Oceania-all are more or less closed systems. One of the fathers of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow, liked to speculate about an ideal society founded by a thousand self-actualizers on a desert island. Theirs too would be a closed system. Pop psychology, lacking "external validation" of its prescriptions, is a desert island in our midst. Exhorting us to erase the influences that shaped us, to "wipe the slate clean" (a utopian undertaking in itself), pop psychology then addresses our emptiness. The failure of one self-help system sends readers to another, which likewise will not work because, morally speaking, it too defies gravity. You can't write your own life as if you were a character you invented. Surely it is the inefficacy, not the efficacy, of self-help that keeps the genre going. "Perhaps the next book will provide the answers, the comfort, the cure, the secrets being sought." The single-minded search for happiness is liable to be self-defeating. Life's enjoyments, John Stuart Mill discovered,
are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinising examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.
Readers of self-help prescriptions are drawn into an incessant scrutiny of their own happiness or lack of it. The rhetoric of self-help-its promises, declarations of emergency, urgings and warnings, commands, prayers, assurances-summons one into an endless maze.
Like a closed system, self-help manuals virtually quote one another, urging readers to live in the moment and accept no precepts but their own. The genre gives every appearance of feeding on itself. Can it be that instead of curing ailments it promotes an ailment-inflames an obsession with the recovery of one's true self which, both because of the irrational nature of obsession and the imaginary nature of one's true self, cannot possibly be satisfied? Self-help books generate more of the same because a quest for the true self is a quest without an object.
Although I don't believe in the supremacy of therapeutic categories, one aim of this book is indeed the curative one of exposing fallacy and pretense. If now and then the tone turns satiric, satire itself undertook to cure illusion long before psychiatrists, counselors, personal coaches, therapists, and bibliotherapists ever did. In the self-help manual Excess Baggage: Getting Out of Your Own Way, the particular need that dominates one's personality is designated a ruling passion. "Ruling passion" was once a term of moral, and satiric, psychology. Swift would have been at home with it. Dickens's characters seem ruled by their passions, stuck like jammed mechanisms. Among the targets of Dickensian satire is the kind of success story told in Samuel Smiles's Self-Help (1859), which today's self-help authors do not recognize as a prototype of their stories of psychological success.
Why does pop psychology flourish? The boldness of its promises would be one reason. The author of You Can Negotiate Anything (a best-seller twenty-five years ago) probably didn't believe you can negotiate a new existence, but a new existence is just what the self-help genre promises, at times in so many words. That promise in turn would find few takers if not for a widely held belief that within us, at our core, there exists the potential of another life and another self-our true self. But if the governing trope of the pop psychology movement is that we have become estranged from this true self (or lost the well-being that is our birthright and our natural state), that belief was identified by the scholar of romanticism M. H. Abrams as enjoying "wide currency" on the other side of the Atlantic some two hundred years ago. In the age of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and under the double impact of the French and Industrial Revolutions, the belief arose that "man, who was once well, is now ill, and that at the core of the modern malaise lies his fragmentation, dissociation, estrangement, or (in the most highly charged of these parallel terms), 'alienation.'" Writing in 1971, Abrams remarked,
These ideas are shared in our time by theologians, philosophers, economists, sociologists, psychologists, artists, writers, critics, and readers of Life magazine and The Reader's Digest, and the copious writings on this theme have been assembled into widely-read anthologies.
Evidently a belief that we have been separated from our true selves accompanies the formation and haunts the success of a modern commercial society governed largely by impersonal mechanisms.
Although pop psychology is hostile to tradition, which it envisions as threatening to the self, its theme of the loss and recovery of authenticity is itself, by now, traditional, even generic. The experiments of the romantics have become the conventions and dogmas of the therapists. When Wordsworth wrote, "The Child is the father of the Man," could he have envisioned Inner Child exercises? When he and others dreamed of humanity's recovery from alienation, could they have imagined the recovery movement? In any case, maladies of the spirit that in one form or another have existed for some two centuries are not about to be cured by workbooks and exercises. Acceptance of our own condition, with all of its fragmentation, seems wiser at this point than the pursuit of panaceas.
* In making the now-celebrated argument in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1800) that nothing distinguishes good poetry from good prose except meter, Wordsworth transposed the criticism of "artificial distinctions," and the leveling impulse, from politics to poetry. Pop psychology transposes utopianism from the political register of the 1960s to a therapeutic one. But the spark was already there. In 1961, a few years before the outbreak of the social revolt, Maslow was asked how we can work toward a healthy society. He replied,
The primary tool we now have for doing this, and I suppose the best way for doing it, is by psychoanalysis or some other form of depth analysis with the help of a skilled person. However, since this is not a very practical suggestion for most of us, certainly not for most of mankind, we must turn our attention to more and more mass techniques of helping the person to discover this precious human nature deep within himself-this nature that he is afraid of expressing.
Those mass techniques became pop psychology-its most cherished doctrine that within us we bear an undiscovered self-but not before an upheaval set events in motion. If humanistic psychology was a spark, the social revolt of the 1960s, with its indictment of an inauthentic society, was the wind that set the fire racing.
In turn, the utopianism of the 1960s, codified in Charles Reich's The Greening of America (1970), settled into the institution of pop psychology. Where the counterculture celebrated by Reich sought "to disavow the very idea of the past," the therapists have made that wish into a program and an industry, admonishing us even now to start living "instead of continuing in the old direction that is grounded in a tired, outdated, and irrelevant history." Those who tell us to turn off the past have at this point several decades, and an infinity of repetition, behind their exhortations. The very word "irrelevant" echoes the cry of "relevance" raised in the 1960s. Likewise, the counterculture's aim of "displacing Dick-Jane-Spot-Baby" grew into the standard exercises of the self-help genre, where readers learn to liberate themselves, one little step at a time, from their own upbringing. At the beginning of Self Matters, Phil McGraw, the influential psychologist, confesses that his own life reached an impasse some years before. It is the same impasse reached by Reich's Consciousness II:
Consciousness II is the victim of a cruel deception. It has been persuaded that the richness, the satisfactions, the joy of life are to be found in power, success, status, acceptance, popularity, achievements, rewards, excellence.
According to Reich, those of insufficiently advanced consciousness "wear themselves out in pursuit of a self that is not their own"-which has become the story line of pop psychology as well as the story Phil McGraw tells of himself. For that matter, the countercultural refrain "Do your own thing" was an invention of Dr. Fritz Perls, originally a psychoanalyst, later the father of Gestalt Therapy.
As its name suggests, the counterculture opposed the mainstream. Pop psychology is a counterculture so fully institutionalized that it belongs to the mainstream. Where the dissident psychiatry of the 1960s held that "madness is health," pop psychology markets the paradox that blame is blameworthy and morality immoral. It preaches against preaching and instructs you to unlearn. "Thou shalt not" it replaces with "Do it." Objecting to what it calls the programming of the self, pop psychology undertakes to reprogram it with its own formulas, instructions, and exercises. To a culture that values achievement, it replies that the self cannot be measured by achievement. Dedication to a high standard it labels perfectionism; obligation it redefines as obligation to self. As in the story of Phil McGraw, success in pop psychology often spells failure; failure on the other hand is the seed of enlightenment. In stark contrast to our legal customs, those accused in the pages of self-help books are always presumed guilty and never allowed to speak for themselves. In one notable work of the self-help school, the Golden Rule itself is inverted. In pop psychology the oppositional spirit of the counterculture has become a reflex, a doctrine, a program.
By the end of the sixties, countercultural activism was already shading into therapy, as psychodrama, encounter groups, and the like became the new idiom of revolt. Esalen Institute at Big Sur, a sort of laboratory of countercultural theory and practice, became a hub for psychiatrists and psychologists, one of whom, William Schutz (inventor of the encounter group) wrote in the 1967 best-seller Joy, "The time is now. We'd better hurry. The culture is already getting to [the author's infant son]-Ethan looks as if he is beginning to feel frightened and guilty." The declaration of a state of emergency; the indictment of "the culture" as an all-enveloping menace; the myth that we come into the world filled with joy and authenticity, which we are then deprived of; the portrayal of guilt as a force destroying our well-being from within-these are the buds and shoots of pop psychology as we know it today.
Excerpted from FOOL'S PARADISE by Stewart Justman Copyright © 2005 by Stewart Justman.
Excerpted by permission.
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Stewart Justman won the PEN Award for the Art of the Essay for his book Seeds of Mortality, published by Ivan R. Dee in 2003. Mr. Justman teaches English at the University of Montana and has also written The Springs of Liberty and The Psychological Mystique. He is married with two children and lives in Missoula, Montana.
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